The world-class St. Peters Rec-Plex turns 25 this year, and two of its ice skating instructors have been along for every loop, flip and axel.
Cindi Thomas and Pam Forster can hardly believe the longevity they have enjoyed, or how fast the years have passed. Both arrived in 1994 and have been fixtures on the rink and influences in the lives of their pupils.
“It is a long time,” Cindi said, adding that “sharing the joy of skating with kids and seeing a kid accomplish something” continue to provide her with a bounty of energy and a high level of motivation.
“Many, many times I’ve heard from parents that their kid was struggling in school and struggling with their self-esteem, and how skating turned things around,” Cindi said. “That’s a big deal. You develop really close relationships with (students). I have one student I started teaching when she was 14, and she’s celebrating her 40th birthday now. She’s a dear, close friend.”
Pam, who lives in University City, previously worked in outside sales but has never desired a return to that career since the Rec-Plex became home away from home.
“I enjoy the atmosphere. It’s very family-oriented,” said Pam, a mother of three, including 13-year-old twins. “The people that work here might not have been here as long as (Cindi and I), but they’re getting close. Most people that start working here stay.
“I drive here every single day, sometimes twice a day. I like all the opportunities it offers kids — with any activity, but especially in skating. You can go to other facilities and they don’t offer as many options. … My kids grew up in this building. Even though we live in University City, this place is like home to them.”
Pam often is reminded of the impact she has made on the lives of her students, whether she is shopping, eating in a restaurant or running errands.
“I have people walk up to me and say, ‘Hi, Pam!’ They remember me,” she said. “They’re all grown up and they’re with their own kids. They have fond memories. Some (former students) come back and say, ‘I want my kids to take lessons from you because I took them from you.’”
Cindi and Pam, of course, have forged a close friendship. Their jobs occasionally are hectic and stressful, particularly as they coordinate and produce ice shows. But each is a sounding board for the other, and their years of experience enable them to overcome any emergency situations that arise.
“I’ve known Cindi since I started teaching skating,” Pam said. “She was teaching before I was, but we became friends early, right away. It feels like we kind of grew up together.”
Cindi, who has two adopted daughters from Guatemala, ages 17 and 14, agrees.
“We’ve gone through a lot together,” Thomas said of her relationship with Pam. “We’ve gone through so many competitions and bosses and students coming and going. We work well together. Pam’s here all the time.”
Cindi, who lives in St. Peters, also spends long hours at the Rec-Plex. She calls it a “second home” and, like Forster, has used the complex to instruct her own children on the ice.
“My car comes here all by itself,” she said. “It’s been an awesome place to work.”
Come one, come all
Cindi and Pam are versatile. They can teach ice skating to kids as young as 3 or adults of 63. Students typically graduate from basic fundamentals — forward skating, backward skating, stops, edges, crossovers and others — to more technical skills.
Having patience is important for instructors and students, since there is no set formula for success and development on the ice.
“Some kids pick up something really fast and some kids take years to learn that same skill,” Pam said. “No matter how simple or difficult it is, it’s amazing. You get so excited for that kid when that happens.
I just try to make sure they keep moving forward.”
Pam said that kids sometimes get to a point where they can’t pass (progression) tests anymore. “They kind of plateau,” she said. “But there are other avenues or different things we can do to make it exciting. Sometimes, you can learn skills from a higher level, even if you can’t pass a level before it.”
Cindi said kids “learn differently” during a normal 30-minute lesson, so an instructor must understand what’s best for each student.
“Some of them are visual learners,” Cindi said. “Some of them, you have to break down every tiny thing. You’ve got to understand their personalities and you have to develop that personal relationship, understand them.”
The power of the mind is critical to success in all sports. Pam estimates that skating is “80 percent mental.”
Part of maintaining a mental edge is to help skaters avoid burnout. Overloading them with information can compromise their development.
“Once a week is the minimum for lessons,” Forster said. “Twice a week is best, I think. It depends on each kid’s personality. There are some kids that could be out here every day and you could teach them every day.”
Cindi and Pam collaborate on ice shows, arranging the program, creating costumes and conceptualizing the music. The Spring Ice Show this year, “From Rags to Riches,” was held May 17-19. The 2020 show already is in preliminary stages. Above, you can see a photo from the 25th annual Winter Wonderland on Ice Show held in December 2018.
Cindi most enjoys the productions, despite the craziness and last-minute details leading up to the shows.
“It’s a very technical sport, but it’s also a very artistic sport,” Cindi said. “That’s probably the hardest thing, to teach artistry and musicality. But that’s the part I really love. I have a dance background, so I use that in my classes, too.”
Organizing a show, Cindi said, is like “making a cake.”
“The cake is all your technical elements,” she said. “Then we put the frosting on, and that’s adding the footwork and the connecting moves. Then we put the sprinkles on, and that’s (working with) the arms and the head. We kind of just add the layers and eventually, hopefully, it comes together.
“It’s a magical thing to see it all come together. You think you’re going to lose your mind at some point, then you stand there and watch and say, ‘I did this.’”
Pam said a key to skaters succeeding in a production is making sure they look good while performing. Costumes are one thing, technique is another.
“Whatever it is they’re doing, whether it’s a three-turn or stroking or an axel, they need to look good doing it,” Pam said. “That’s our job as skaters — to make it look fun and easy even though it is hard work.
“That’s what I drive home with my students all the time. When I see them skate, I want them to look good doing it. If they don’t look good, they’re probably not going to stick with it. It’s hard work to get there, but once it looks easy, they feel like they’ve accomplished something.”
During her career at the Rec-Plex, Cindi said the 2011 Ice Skating Institute (now Ice Sports Industry) Winter Classic is one of her fondest memories. A record 142 people — students, coaches and parents from the community — were on the ice at the same time. The former Winter Classic record was 97.
“That was huge to put that production team together,” Cindi said. “It was really cool to see all the kids on the ice and everybody getting their medals. It was a highlight for all of us.”